26th September 2010, www.island.lk, By Ifham Nizam
The Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) of Sri Lanka established in the early nineties by a group of young volunteers with the aim of conserving marine turtles is also helping a number of community based projects.
With the assistance of UNDP’s Small Grants Programme/GEF, a large number of people are now involved in handling a number of successful projects. TCP Head Thushan Kapurusinghe told The Island’s Financial Review that they are in the process of setting up an Information and Tourist Centre.
He says such activities were possible due to the ongoing community based projects that fetch a large income to once marginalized families.
Few years ago most of the coastal communities in Rekawa exploited marine and coastal resources for their survival. Turtle egg poaching, slaughtering turtles for meat; coral mining and mangrove destruction are direct threats to both fauna and the environment.
The Green turtle (Chelonia mydas), Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), Olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) and the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) are among the most sighted species coming to local beaches.
TCP Secretary Lalith Ekanayake says: "We realised the chain connection between the coastal communities and coastal resources, which heavily depended on each other.
As a solution, we implemented community livelihood, community infrastructure development, environment restoration and awareness programmes including a turtle night watch nature tourism initiative in Rekawa village".
Prior to the implementation of the innovative concept which is referred as ‘Community Based Ecosystem Conservation Approach’ (CBECA), all the turtle eggs have been poached in Rekawa and turtles killed for meat. But today, all those egg collectors are employed as turtle nest protectors and trained as tourist guides, he says.
In addition, community based organizations (CBOs) have been established for various alternative livelihoods such as ornamental fish breeding group, Batik group, sewing group, farming group, coir mat group etc. as a solution for destructive income generating practices and these people are currently engaged in their local business very successfully.
All turtle nests are protected on –site by the local community and hatchlings are released to the sea.
The Rekawa beach was declared as Sri Lanka’s first marine turtle sanctuary by the Department of Wildlife Conservation in 2006 as a result of TCP’s dedicated work with the community in Rekawa.
TCP’s CBECA is a multi-pronged approach with seven main components: livelihood development, infrastructure development, environmental restoration and management, awareness/capacity development, partnership building/networking, knowledge management and sharing and utilization of traditional knowledge and culture.
On-site marine turtle nest protection in Rekawa and Kosgoda. There was no law enforcement along the Rekawa beach prior to the TCP’s arrival in 1993. In 1996, TCP established its pioneering community-based in-situ marine turtle nest protection programme with the aim of not only protecting marine turtles but also supporting local people who depend on the coastal resources for their livelihood.
This project was implemented in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation, the University of Peradiniya, the National Aquatic Resources Agency (NARA) and the University of Ruhuna.
Mangroves provide important habitats for many fauna, including marine turtles. They are being harmed by threats such as cutting for firewood, shrimp-farming, tourism development and in some areas mangroves were also destroyed or damaged by the 2004 Asian tsunami.
TCP initiated a mangrove planting project with community participation in 2004 in Kalpitiya. "This project has proved successful, and the mangroves are growing really well at the moment. The project also provides benefits to local communities as mangroves improve fisheries such as fish harvest, crabs and shrimps etc. giving lagoon fishermen a greater source of income. The project employed local community members to plant the mangroves," he says.
Coastal vegetation restoration
Coastal vegetation has been shown to play a vital role in marine and coastal ecosystem function. In particular, Green turtles prefer to deposit their eggs under the vegetation cover. Coastal vegetation has been cleared to provide space for tourism and hotel development, and the 2004 tsunami destroyed a great deal of vegetation along the coastal belt.
TCP has started restoring vegetation in many locations around the coast of Sri Lanka.
"We are the first institution who convinced the Department of Wildlife about the eclaration of Rekawa beach as Sri Lanka’s first Marine Turtle Sanctuary by providing scientific data and evidence," Ekanayake said. TCP helped the Wildlife Department in demarcating the sanctuary boundaries and in displaying the boundary signboards.
"We also gave extensive training to local people, often those who used to be involved in stealing the turtle eggs and destroying coastal habitats, and employed them as nest protectors. Currently there are 32 villagers employed as nest protectors in Rekawa and Kosgoda sites,’ he added.
The 2004 tsunami was a severe blow to the two villages situated in the southern coast claiming life and property leaving them shattered and broken mentally, physically and materially.
Many lost all their possessions and savings of a lifetime. Fishermen lost their boats and fishing equipment and sales were also low as people living inland stopped eating fish for months in the belief that fish would have consumed human flesh.
The Tsunami destroyed turtle nests and coastal vegetation, leaving nest protectors and tour-guides unemployed. Tourism also collapsed and people in Kosgoda and Rekawa lost their livelihood.
TCP lost the lives of three nest protectors in Kosgoda. The office building worth two million LKR and research equipment was also destroyed by the tsunami, hampering TCP work in the two villages.
However, the giant waves couldn’t stop the dedicated efforts of TCP and with the assistance of many individuals and institutions TCP was able to recover from the natural disaster within a short period of time.
"Our leader won ‘the best environmentalist of the year’ award presented by the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) in 2004,’he said.
TCP’s turtle night watch programme was selected as one of the ‘top ten’ eco friendly destinations in the world in January 2008. In addition, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) selected TCP’s turtle night watch programme as a finalist of the best practice in conservation category in April, 2008.
TCP received ‘Tourism for Tomorrow’ Highly Commended Award from the Virgin Holydays Responsible Tourism Awards in November, 2008. TCP also won the Green Employment Award presented by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, in June 2009.
The BBCSaving Planet Earth documentary film on TCP Sri Lanka is one of the best evidences to support TCP’s recognition.